Sunday, February 14, 2010

Focusing on Families: Behind the Tebow Super Bowl Ad

In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, national controversy swirled over the inclusion of an ad produced by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family in the coveted Super Bowl commercial lineup, showing during the most-watched hours of television each year. Though commentators and advocates had not yet seen the ad, it was described from the start as an anti-abortion advocacy spot featuring Pam Tebow and her son, Tim, a football star known for sporting bible verses on his face while on the playing field.

The initial reactions from pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America were for censorship: CBS should pull this women-hating ad. The catch for me was that the ad was evidently focused on how Pam, with her family as missionaries in the Philippines at the time, chose to carry a pregnancy to term that she had been told would be dangerous to her own health. That “pro-choice” feminists would call for the censorship of a message of one woman’s choice is of course incredibly problematic. In fact, it’s an issue that has long troubled the movement, as if admitting that some women struggle with having an abortion, or that for some women carrying a difficult pregnancy to term is a choice they willingly make, somehow weakens a pro-choice argument. It does not.

Anyway, the tenor of the response soon rightly shifted from “we must censor Focus on the Family” (and let me be clear – they are an organization with enormous resources who stand for an agenda that I abhor) to a focus on CBS’s hypocritical policies on advocacy ads. With a history of rejecting spots with liberal messages from the United Church of Christ and MoveOn, to name a few, in the past, CBS’s decision to air the conservative Focus on the Family ad was clearly suspect. (Click here to read a piece on the controversy written by a sports writer Dan Zirin. Thanks to Herr Hartman over at Cheeze Blog for pointing me to this article.)

My purpose here, however, is not to rehash the pre-Bowl controversy, but to look at the ad itself. Not a football fan, I chose to watch the ad on the Focus on the Family website.

And wow was it underwhelming. But fascinating in its underwhelmingness. I bet that the average Super Bowl watcher was unaware of the brouhaha over the ad, and moreover I strongly suspect that most chose those 30 seconds to run to the kitchen to grab more cheese. Featuring a well-groomed Pam Tebow talking about her “miracle baby,” and a comedic tackle by her Heisman trophy-winning son, the ad in its concomitant polish and simplicity seems like an innocuous pro-family/”moms are strong” message in the tradition of those old NBC “and now you know” public service announcements. Even the accompanying soundtrack, a cheerful “doo doo do do do do,” underscores the “aw, how sweet” factor. In the midst of talking babies shilling stocks, KISS hawking Dr. Pepper, and cars, cars, beer, and more cars, the Tebow ad must have seemed utterly normal and even boring. In the face of the ad’s seeming inoffensiveness, the protests seemed, well, excessive.

The question for me, and I’m sure FotF could tell us from their web stats, is how many people actually followed the commercial’s “for the full Tebow story go to” directive to visit the organization’s website. After all, the anodyne “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life” tagline is probably only read as a specific political message by those already committed to supporting or opposing FotF’s agenda. Surely if there had been no controversy, those numbers would have been far fewer, and I’m sure that generating controversy was part of the organization’s strategy from the beginning.

Even when you do watch the “full story” on the website – an interview of Pam and Bob Tebow by FotF’s president Jim Daly – the group’s anti-abortion message is curiously veiled until well into the ten-minute video. One sign does come early in the piece, however, when Bob is retelling the story of how as a missionary in the Philippines he prayed for another child for their already six-member family. In an odd bit of bad audio editing – especially for such a slickly produced commercial and web package – Bob’s story is clearly spliced as the camera leaves his face and pans over pictures of the small brown masses who the towering white Tebows were busy saving with the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Um, maybe someone should tell them about the 400+ years of colonialism during which time Filipinos had ample, uh, opportunities to hear the “good news.”)

Bob says, “I was weeping [audible audio splice] over the loss of millions of babies in America who were never given a chance [end of splice] and I prayed and said, ‘God, if you want another preacher in this world, give me Timmy’ – and this was before he was conceived – ‘and I will raise him to be a preacher.’”

The noticeable addition of the anti-abortion message feels forced – clearly it’s not what Bob said during the initial interview. Likely the editor told the producer, “Hey we need some more anti-abortion sentiment in here” and added the phrase, recorded over the phone from the sound of it, post-production. The effect of this jarring addition is a direct revelation of FotF’s anti-choice agenda, which is otherwise effectively cloaked in a fluffy, heart-warming tale of a Christian couple doing their best to be good parents and live what they believe is God’s plan for them, using the platforms given to them and their children.

Only at 8 ½ minutes in does Daly direct the conversation to the issue at hand: saving babies. Daly asks the Tebows what they would want to say to a young woman (often referred to as a “girl”) with an unplanned (“surprise”) pregnancy. Pam offers that the baby is “not a mistake,” and that there are many people who want to help her, including “pregnancy centers,” which I observe are now conspicuously missing their former adjective “crisis.” Pam then defers to Bob, as she often does in the video. Looking directly into the camera, Bob tears up as he tells this hypothetical pregnant girl that “God loves you” and “don’t kill your baby,” platitudes that have been delivered aggressively and violently by clinic protestors for decades.

So again I ask, who, other than people like me, sat through this ten-minute video in order to receive this soft-focus version of the long-standing anti-abortion message? Admittedly I’m not in touch with football culture. Does Tim Tebow have lots of adoring adolescent girl fans who would gladly watch an online video of his parents just to learn any new scrap of information about him, and wham!, in the process realize that they shouldn’t kill their hypothetical babies? Honestly, if the video was aimed at teenagers the style should have been very different. The links to resources “Know Your Options” and “Be a Voice for Life” do seem aimed at college-age women and mothers of teenagers alike. The OptionLine ad is standard (crisis) pregnancy center fare.

(An aside – I was chilled to see on the Be a Voice for Life site a call to “Help us Thank Pregnancy Centers for Serving Women and Saving Lives,” a clear appropriation of the message of the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers, started by the now-defunct Refuse & Resist, which I for many years helped organize.)

So again, why this ad? Why now? Why so cloaked? Tim Tebow has always been forthright about his faith – why not have him record a straightforward video saying, “I’m glad my mom didn’t abort me. Don’t kill your baby – you never know, he might be the next Heisman winner.” Don’t get me wrong. For years the anti-abortion movement has been mainstreaming their message, moving away from a focus on protesting clinics towards a pro-woman sounding stance. This is clearly another (extremely well-funded) example of this, highlighting the "strong" mom, Pam Tebow. I guess I’m just having a hard time understanding the place of this ad in the overall anti-abortion strategy at this political moment. Is this ad, and its supporting web videos and pages, the Trojan horse of a new, slick, public relations attack on abortion? Coupled with the murder of Dr. George Tiller less than a year ago and increased threats against always (literally) embattled abortion providers, Focus on the Family’s ad could indeed prove quite dangerous.

1 comment:

Chris Hartman said...

Thanks for prompting me to go watch the video on the Focus on the Family site, and for flagging that audio splice.

I'm a bit more in touch with football culture, but as far as I know, football players are not high on the teen-idol list for adolescent girls. Nothing compared to singers or movie or TV stars, anyway.

Part of it is the football medium I think: The players wear body armor and helmets, which makes them relatively anonymous. Also, most of the action takes place far away from the cameras; to catch the occasional TV close-up of Tebow's face, one would have to watch A LOT of boring football while probably in the same room with a bunch of boorish guys. The athletes who tend to draw the affections of girls and young women tend to be in sports like baseball, tennis, soccer, and even hockey, where the athlete's face and personality can communicate through the TV screen.

As for audience, I think there's always been an audience for this sort of "kinder, gentler" anti-abortion appeal, and I'm actually surprised that it is only now emerging. Clearly it flummoxed the pro-choice organizations; as you say, this type of rhetoric is much more difficult to oppose than that of Operation Rescue. I think the Tiller murder definitely is playing a part. But isn't there also a substantial plurality of Americans who are personally opposed to abortion but who are pro-choice when it comes to the law? I think this message is aimed straight at them.

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